Some Ancient Native Americans Settled on Beringia Migrated Back Home

Mar 13, 2014 11:18 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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Early Native Americans settled in the middle of a bridge that connected Asia to Alaska, but not all of them continued on to North America, according to a PLOS One press release.

Researchers now believe that a part of the group that initially settled on Beringia moved back home, according to the release.

The study also confirms that people stayed on Beringia for close to 10,000 years before it disappeared into the ocean. The land bridge is now known as the Bering Strait.

Mark Sicoli from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Gary Holton from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, respectively, collected information on sound systems and "word structure from published grammars of a group of languages" spoken by Native Americans, called Na-Dene, and the Yeniseian languages used in Central Siberia, according to the release.

The two studied the linguistic dataset by using a technique called computational phylogeneticsm which was developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between "biological species," according to LiveScience. It involves making a tree that represents relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits.

"Incorporating (methods from computational phylogenetics) into linguistics can increase the dialogue between linguistics, archaeology, biology, and ecology in developing our understanding of prehistory," said Sicoli to LiveScience.

The researchers used this technique to track all of the different adaptations and mutations of the Na-Dene and Yeniseian languages as they moved across Asia and North America.

"We used computational phylogenetic methods to impose constraints on possible family tree relationships modeling both an Out-of-Beringia hypothesis and an Out-of-Asia hypothesis and tested these against the linguistic data," Sicoli said in the press release. "We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age."

Findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

Though the study doesn't dispute the land bridge theory of migration into North America, it does confirm not everyone who used it made the complete journey.

The study also shows how evolutionary and migratory mysteries can be solved by using linguistics.

"It seems to be quite consistent with the genetic analysis that led to the Beringia standstill hypothesis," Dennis O'Rourke, anthropological geneticist from the University of Utah who was not involved in the study, said to LiveScience. "There's at least one or two mitochondrial lineages."

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